Deaths show vul­ner­a­bil­ity of el­derly

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Scott Maxwell Sentinel Colum­nist

An Amer­i­can horror story un­folded at a South Florida nurs­ing home this week when eight res­i­dents died in swel­ter­ing, un­air-con­di­tioned con­di­tions — even though a hos­pi­tal was di­rectly across the street.

When res­cue work­ers fi­nally en­tered the build­ing Wed­nes­day, three days af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma knocked out its AC, they found three corpses within the first 10 min­utes.

The fi­nal tally was eight — in­clud­ing an 84-year-old jan­i­tor with 20 great-grand­chil­dren and a 70-year-old mother who liked to play cards and cook Ital­ian food.

The story seemed as shock­ing as it was tragic. And politicians quickly pro­claimed their out­rage.

Only here’s the thing: This shouldn’t come as a com­plete shock.

We live in a state that has sys­tem­at­i­cally rolled back reg­u­la­tions on nurs­ing homes and as­sisted-liv­ing cen­ters and that has re­pealed pro­tec­tions for the peo­ple who live there.

And we live in a coun­try that doesn’t do enough to pun­ish health-care ex­ecs who do wrong — as the owner of this place was ac­cused of do­ing years ago.

In short, we have cooked up a recipe for disas­ter.

Au­thor­i­ties have launched mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions, in­clud­ing a crim­i­nal one, into the deaths at the Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter at Hol­ly­wood Hills. De­tails and cul­pa­bil­ity aren’t yet clear.

But what is com­pletely clear — what I and other jour­nal­ists in this state have doc­u­mented for years — is this state’s as­sault on pro­tec­tions meant to keep vul­ner­a­ble el­derly res­i­dents safe.

In 2006 — on the heels of Hur­ri­cane Wilma — a bi­par­ti­san coali­tion of leg­is­la­tors spon­sored a bill to re­quire all nurs­ing homes to have gen­er­a­tors that could cool and run their fa­cil­i­ties even when power gets knocked out. The bill died af­ter the in­dus­try ob­jected.

“The Leg­is­la­ture is hor­ri­ble when it comes to ev­ery­thing that doesn’t have a tragedy be­hind it,” the bill’s main spon­sor, Demo­crat Dan Gel­ber, told the Mi­ami Her­ald this week. “They have one now.”

Still, Gov. Rick Scott took things even fur­ther in 2011 when he took of­fice — and quickly ousted the state’s lead el­der-af­fairs watchdog.

Om­buds­man Brian Lee, who had served both Govs. Jeb Bush and Char­lie Crist, had ex­posed all sorts of prob­lems at fa­cil­i­ties around the state: Bed sores. A woman who said her teeth hadn’t been brushed in a month. A place that had roaches crawl­ing in the pantry and ro­dent drop­pings. The ex­am­ples went on and on.

He and his army of vol­un­teers got re­sults — with fam­ily mem­bers who called them giv­ing the pro­gram a 98 per­cent sat­is­fac­tion rate.

But Lee said his vig­i­lance ticked off some of the fa­cil­ity own­ers — es­pe­cially when he be­gan push­ing for more transpar-

ency.

Just 34 days af­ter Scott was sworn into of­fice, Lee and his 98 per­cent sat­is­fac­tion rat­ing were his­tory.

But it didn’t stop there. A few months later, leg­is­la­tors be­gan rolling back safety pro­tec­tions, re­duc­ing, for in­stance, the num­ber of hours of di­rect care nurs­ing homes had to pro­vide to res­i­dents.

Much of this was done in the name of “dereg­u­la­tion” — a word that sounds swell un­til you re­al­ize the end re­sult can be a World War II vet­eran left wal­low­ing in his own filth. Or missed med­i­ca­tion. Or death. “What hap­pened in South Florida was a hor­rific tragedy that should have never hap­pened,” said Lee, who now runs a non­profit that ad­vo­cates for nurs­ing-home res­i­dents called Fam­i­lies for Bet­ter Care. “It was to­tally pre­ventable.”

Un­for­tu­nately, he said, Florida has wit­nessed “a slow, me­thod­i­cal roll­back” of pro­tec­tions for el­derly cit­i­zens by politicians in Tal­la­has­see who have bought into the in­dus­try’s claims that “gov­ern­ment over­sight” is a bad idea.

But the prob­lems don’t end at the state level. Fed­eral of­fi­cials have also played patty-cake with ac­cused wrong­do­ers for years.

Time af­ter time af­ter time, health-care com­pa­nies are ac­cused of de­fraud­ing tax­pay­ers out of mil­lions of dol­lars … but get off with slaps on the wrist and mu­tu­ally agreed-upon deals.

Steal a TV? You can get five years.

Ac­cused of steal­ing mil­lions of tax dol­lars? You can get a deal. And a li­cense to run an­other fa­cil­ity. Maybe even a gov­er­nor­ship.

Rick Scott was at the cen­ter of one of the largest cases of Medi­care fraud in U.S. his­tory — a case where the ex­ec­u­tives walked away af­ter the com­pany paid a $1.7 bil­lion fine.

And the feds ac­cused the owner of this very fa­cil­ity in South Florida — the one where eight peo­ple died — of fraud and tak­ing kick­backs back in 2004, only to al­low him and his part­ners to en­ter into a fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment two years later.

This al­lowed Dr. Jack Michel, whom the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment iden­ti­fied as “the pri­mary re­cip­i­ent of the kick­backs,” to open an­other fa­cil­ity ... one that’s now a crime scene.

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